The snow crunched beneath Steve Swanson’s feet as he tromped over ground that just months before had been covered in water.
Several yards from this site, where Ten Mile Creek had been diverted, snow-topped boulders rose out of a new and improved stream channel. The rocks were surrounded by swift, clear flowing water revealing brown and orange pebbles on the streambed below.
Work has ceased for the season at the Ten Mile Creek Restoration project site, between the Conoco Station and Copper Mountain’s Far East parking lot, but not before about 1,600 feet of new stream were created.
“It’s been amazing to see the construction come together,” said Swanson, director of the Blue River Watershed Group and a major player in the restoration project.
Soft white crystals of snow flew from tree branches as Swanson described the changes that have been made to the landscape in the last several months. Before the waterway was diverted and re-created, it was relatively straight and featureless with not much in the way of pools or wetlands. The new stream channel includes bends, pools and riffles that serve as ideal habitat for fish and insects, and the shores and surrounding areas have been treated with a blend of topsoil, compost and grass seed, along with native wetland and riparian seed mixes.
Next spring, a mix of shrubs, sedges and willows will be planted on the site. Seeds that were collected at the site prior to construction also will be returned to the habitat.
Next year, workers will undertake Phase 2 of the project, which includes more restoration work in the area downstream of the portion that has been completed.
“The conditions will represent the conditions we believe were on-site before mining impacts from the late 1800s and early 1900s — that we still see today,” said Justin Anderson, White River National Forest hydrologist.
Historic mining, timber harvest, development, railroads and highway construction had altered the course of Ten Mile Creek, narrowing its floodplain and creating widespread deposits of sediment.
“We get accustomed to veiwing these things as normal but there have been major changes (to the environment) associated with the early mining years — along with railways and highway construction — not just along Ten Mile Creek but all over Summit County,” Anderson said.
The restoration project incorporated features that would occur naturally in the environment, creating meandering streams with proper widths and slopes and a variety of vegetation along the channel.
Emulating the natural processes that existed before modern-day impacts has been a learning process, Anderson said. “We had to put a lot of thought into what existed here before. ‘Can we recreate that? And if so, how?’”
The project is a collaborative effort among many agencies and organizations — including the Blue River Watershed Group, the Forest Service, Copper Mountain and Climax Mine.
“The White River National Forest has not in any recent times taken on a project of this size, and we would not be able to do this without our partners,” Anderson said. “That’s an important part of the story. We are building productive partnerships that allow us to have these successes.”
Seeing the project come together have been extremely rewarding for Anderson and Swanson, who have been planning it for years.
“We’ve worked together on grant applications, budgets, presentations, all of the dry stuff,” Anderson said. “I was also involved in the preliminary design work, and it’s rewarding to see things start to take shape on paper, but it’s not until you are on the ground seeing it happen that you start to see your work pay off.”
Although the project is relatively small in the larger scheme of things, project managers said it’s worth doing.
“Little slices of intact floodplain in valley bottoms have become more and more rare. We’ve lost so much of it that it makes the floodplain we do have intact so valuable,” Anderson said.
The creek restoration is coinciding with a recpath extension project taking place in the same vicinity. The fact that the restoration project is happening in an area that is heavily used for recreation adds to its value, Swanson said.
“This location will have a high visibility with improved access through the recpath. It will bring a lot of people to the area to enjoy it,” he said.
Project managers plan to resume the Ten Mile Creek Restoration project next spring and complete it by the end of the season.